The trouble with great expectations is that when you fall even just a little short, the disappointment is exponentially greater. In the case of Richard Childress Racing, falling short is very much the story of its season so far. And nowhere was that more evident than at Lowe’s Motor Speedway this past weekend where the quartet of RCR drivers had what can best be termed a collective nightmare. Jeff Burton was the (cough) top finisher in 25th-place, while Casey Mears was 33rd, Clint Bowyer 36th and Kevin Harvick a distant 41st.
Yes, the race was shortened due to the inclement weather, but the rain was hardly a trade secret. It was pretty apparent to anyone with access to radar, and a basic understanding of weather patterns that the Coca-Cola 600 was not going to go the distance. So while the rain was a mitigating factor (especially for David Reutimann; more on him later), it was certainly not a free pass for a horrid afternoon.
Compare and contrast the results in the last points-paying race at LMS back in the fall of 2008, just seven short months ago, where Burton led the final 57 laps on route to victory. The win was enough to move Burton into second place, just 69 points behind Jimmie Johnson, with five races to go and very much in with a shout of winning his first, and the organization’s seventh Cup crown. Bowyer was 185 markers back in fifth place with Harvick a tick behind in sixth (207 back). To paraphrase the great Bob Dylan, times certainly are a changing at RCR.
The overall standings also reflect the disappointing reality of the first third of the season; sitting in stark disparity to where RCR stood the last time they exited the Charlotte-based track. Harvick sits 23rd in the standings, a whopping 279-markers out of Chase contention, while Mears is one spot above in 22nd, 260-points back from 12th place. Bowyer, who started the season brightly, is now in a prolonged slump that has seen him drop from a high water mark of second following the fourth race of the season in Atlanta to a more tepid 17th, some 103-points away from that all-important top-12 berth. Burton is in the Chase field in eighth, but it’s fair to say he has hardly lit up the NASCAR world this season. Two third-place finishes, three other top 10s and 67 laps led (61 of which came at Las Vegas, the remaining six at Talladega) are not the stats of a likely title contender.
Having placed all three cars in the Chase in both of the last two years, this was the season the RCR wheelmen were meant to push on and meaningfully challenge for the title. But so far, it just hasn’t happened. And the signs aren’t there that it’s going to happen any time soon.
But to truly understand the reasons why this has been the case, we need to rewind just a few months to the start of the season. Here are the two RCR veteran drivers on the eve of the 2009 season, starting with Senator Burton:
“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but it’s also clear that it’s not enough. There’s a bit of anxiety about being able to take the next step, [winning a championship] because we haven’t done it. Until we do it, we don’t know that we can… So I don’t want to say we’re nervous, but we’re anxious about it. And we know it’s time to get it done.”
Harvick concurred, noting, “…In ’06 we were close, in ’03 we were close, in ’07 Clint had a shot and the last couple of years we’ve had all three in… So it’s one of those deals where we’re like right there, and we just need that last little bit to push us over the edge.”
12 points paying races later, it’s fair to say that “last little bit” has proved elusive. So what’s gone wrong? Well, as in life, it’s a little bit of everything, so we’ll start with the lack of straight line speed.
How many bonus points, for laps led or most laps led, have the RCR drivers racked up this season? Not very many, but then what would you expect with a paltry total of 92 laps led, 61 of which were Burton at Las Vegas? That adds up to less bonus points as a combined unit than Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Kyle Busch have scored individually: However you slice it, that isn’t getting the job done.
Some of the blame can be laid at team owner Richard Childress’s decision to expand from three to four teams for 2009. Adding an extra driver into the mix is one thing, but given Bowyer’s No. 33 team was a start-up – Mears inherited the No. 07 Jack Daniel’s crew – RCR was essentially fielding two new teams. That’s where the incalculable factor of chemistry comes in; it’s a process that can be sped up by good results, but ultimately can’t be created overnight. It’s no surprise by comparison that Johnson has had an almost unchanged crew working on his No. 48 car these past three years.
The chemistry was given an even bigger shake-up after Talladega, when Childress switched the entire No. 29 and No. 07 teams (minus the spotters). Splitting up Todd Berrier and Harvick – a longtime partnership – was a huge indicator that the malaise at RCR had spread deep. And for all the critics of Mears, that made three crew chiefs in the past seven months (including Alan Gustafson last season). It’s hard to expect anyone to establish any sort of serious consistency with all those different voices in the earpiece.
Another factor to consider is the improved competition. Mark Martin has come back from a partial schedule and won a pair of races, Kurt Busch has emerged from his downturn, while over at SHR, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are significantly exceeding perhaps even their own expectations. The Gibbs drivers are running well, and despite the relative struggles at Roush Fenway, three of their drivers (Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth) are in the Chase. In a sport that is always about the tenth of a second, the fraction of an inch, the number of drivers capable of contending for a Chase spot is higher than ever in the five years of the new points format. For a team that is just a little behind the 8-ball, a gap can become a chasm in no time.
In many ways, the relative failure of RCR illustrates the razor slim margin between success and failure at the sport’s top echelon. At the end of 2008 the organization was close – real close. But real close just doesn’t cut it at Sprint Cup level. And real close can become real far in no time at all. To take just a brief snapshot, look at RCR’s results at Bristol in 2008 where they finished 1-2-3. A year later, Burton finished eighth with Bowyer 13th, Mears 24th and Harvick 30th. That said, it can just as easily swing the other way – just ask MWR and the Reut.
The good news for RCR is that they have someone with four decades of experience at the helm. With six Cup championships, five Nationwide titles and one Truck Series crown under his belt, Richard Childress knows how to author success. You don’t survive for 1,811 rides and 89 wins without knowing a thing or two about righting a listing ship. The bad news is that on the evidence of the season so far, there’s an awful lot to be done and precious little time to do it.